Parshat Terumah (2013)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Making a Dwelling Place for G-d

Hashem spoke to Moses saying:

Speak to the Children of Israel

and let them take for Me a portion,

from every man whose heart motivated him

you shall take My portion.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| veyikchu-li trumah

| me’et kol-ish asher yidvenu libo

| tikchu et-trumati

Exodus 25:1

Pillar of Smoke and FireThis weeks parsha begins with the words “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor / Hashem spoke to Moses saying.” The first question we should ask ourselves is, when did He say this; when did this take place? There are various possibilities presented to us by our Sages and Rabbis. The Baalei Tosafot, Ibn Ezra, the Zohar and several other commentaries say that these words were spoken to Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our Teacher – when he went up to the mountain for 40 days. However, Rashi’s commentary of Exodus, with both Tanchumah and Seder Olam Rabbah, contend that these words were spoken after the incident of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to receive the second set of tablets. However the point should be made that we are certain that these words are connected to either one of these events; you see the book of Exodus primarily concerns itself with two topics from here on. Aside from the story of the Gold Calf (which only takes up two chapters), the remainder of the book of Exodus is devoted to the preparation for construction of the Mishkan the Tabernacle. This parsha is named Trumah, after the portion contributed by each person to help build this Tabernacle sanctuary mentioned here.

In terms of the dictation of biblical commandments, the central focus of the mitzvot of Exodus surrounds the Mishkan. This being the case then we must furthermore ask ourselves what the significance of the Mishkan is. For the Hebrew speaker the word Mishkan is so direct and simple that the profoundness of it can easily be missed; Mishkan literally means a dwelling place, or a habitation. Before the Beit haMikdash the Temple – this was done in the Mishkan tent and not a fixed building, but here in this parsha we see the foundation of Temple worship laid for both instances. Our parsha reads:

Now they shall make Me a sanctuary,

and I will dwell among them.”

| Ve’asu li mikdash

| veshachanti betocham.

Exodus 25:8

And that is really all the place was, a sanctuary constructed unto G-d. There was indeed a type of worship that was centered in this complex, it was designed with altars for sacrifices of all sorts, but namely the perpetual tamid offering of incense that was always lit as the central element of worship. The other task of temple worship was to care for the Holy of Hollies (Kadosh Kadoshim), held in an inner building that also had a perpetually lit candelabrum, the Menorah that illuminated the sanctuary. This was considered the earthly dwelling place of the G-d of Israel. It was so notorious that people from all over the world came to witness it, even though no one other than the high priest was allowed to go into the innermost sanctum. The priests occupied themselves with maintaining this during the day, but the symbols of its occupation through its fires was constant.

What demanded so much attention? What made this all so holy that it would drive the theme of the scriptures so much and the imaginations of people throughout the ages in such a profound way? Even those who are not G-d fearing have asked this question.

In the year 63 B.C.E. after years of besieging the city of Jerusalem the arrogant Roman general Pompey insisted as “victor” had the right to enter into the Holy of Holies itself – beyond of the veils into the Kadosh Kadoshim, his motivation seemingly one of defiance as much as curiosity. Roman historian Tacitus made note of it this way:

Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity — the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.”

The Histories:” Book Five §9,

Cornelius Tacitus, 105 C.E.

When Pompey entered he found no images, no symbols of any kind. All he found was old Torah scrolls occupying the inner chambers. Though this is documented over 150 years after the fact, this is one of the only historical and independent reference we really have that describes the interior for us. Flavius Josephus would also note this event as well, but aside from that the only thing we know about the Temple is from the Torah and the Talmud.

I find it interesting that of all the things that is noted by the classic historians, they would marvel in the lack of images or representations of a deity. Also when Tacitus and Josephus, both imperial Romans but one being non-Jewish and the other Jewish, make this point and note that it is unoccupied they are making a huge statement. Normally in the Greco-Roman custom, like for most other non-Jews of the region, it was common for even a priests or priestesses to be consecrated as a living deity and abide in the inner chambers of their temple complexes. But this was not the case here. It was unique and noteworthy, there were no idols nor demigods or devis in this sanctuary.

Though this is not what surprises most of us Torah students, we are not at all taken back by its lack of images or representations. In much of our recent studies we have discussed the Torah’s demand that we not give in to idolatry and how it champions iconoclasm. In terms of general religion this complex is pretty simple, but this Temple is not exactly empty though. So what should surprise us is the nature of the commandments being given in order to make a sanctuary. The specifics for construction are extremely detailed and demanding, building instruments that are intended for a home; candelabras, tables, curtains, ect. Why are they being told to build things out of precious gold, to make a dwelling tent for an incorporeal G-d? What type of need does it satisfy?

In the Talmud people also wrestle with this question, and the rabbis come to an interesting conclusion as to why all the ritual tenants of the sanctuary were created:

Rabbi Sheshet retorted: ‘Place the lampstand outside the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant…’ (Lev. 24:3) Does [the Holy One, blessed be He] need it’s light? All forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, were they not following His light? However, the lampstand attests to all who are in the world that the Divine Presence dwells among Israel.”

מתיב רב ששת: (ויקרא כד) מחוץ לפרוכת העדות יערוך וכי לאורה הוא צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו בני ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל:

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 22b

In this text Rabbi Sheshet asks us to consider a section of Torah of Leviticus 24:1-4. What our text seems to imply is that even though some of the ritual items appear to have a usefulness, their purpose is for more than mere functionality. For those who are keen to the rituals of Torah know there were no Temple services that took place during the evening, there was no work for the priests to do that demanded light. The lamp-stands were purely intended to stand before the presence of G-d, in the same way as the golden cherubim that were made also stood there to herald the presence of G-d in the sanctuary and flood it with reflective light off their golden wings. The priest didn’t work by the menorah’s diffused light, nor did G-d need its light as He showed His presence in a self-illuminating cloud before His people during the Exodus. Our rabbis here contend that the reason for the ritual items was to signify to the world that G-d’s presence dwells among Israel.

I want us to remember that this section of Torah goes in tandem with Golden Calf crisis, either being immediately before or precisely after the incident. It may seem odd to us that G-d, who unleashes wrath on the people for making a cult around objects of gold and worshiping before them, that here He would be commanding people to make a Temple complex and corresponding rituals for it in worship to Him. Again, no one is exactly sure if this is taking place while the people are below building a Golden Calf or if it is after the fact; but what the juxtaposition of these stories tells us is that G-d had to define right away how the people of Israel were going to be able to relate to Him because left to their own devices they would degenerate into idol worship. And that is exactly what happened, after Moses and the cloud of glory ascended to the mountain and was far off from them for long.

Though our Talmud lesson here turns it all around on us, it make the point that G-d did not need any of these items anymore than He needed a lamp for light. But the people felt a great need, they intensely needed something to symbolize that G-d dwelt among them. Just like the pillar of cloud by day, the smoke of incense offerings would raise up from the middle of the camp; and the same as a pillar of fire by night, the Menorah would shine its light to remind the people of the Divine Presence that dwelt among them.

I have to stress that point, that this sanctuary is to remind the people that G-d dwells among them, because the truth is that G-d is always with us. In all instances before the dedications or restorations of the Temples G-d made it known that He would dwell their in their midst, not just because they had built a complex but because He dwells with His people forever. (compare Exodus 25:8, 29:45; Zachariah 2:14-15; I Kings 6:13; Ezekiel 43:9)

We need to understand that this commandment regarding building of the Tabernacle and the Temple instruments is not one of, “Build it and He will come.” Instead it is more like, “Build it, so that you will know that He is with you.”

As we look back at our ancestors and consider the context of their way of worship, perplexed as to what motivated them to show their adoration for the Divine in this way, we need to understand that all people have an innate drive to bring holiness and wholeness into the world. We all desire to make things better than they are, to bring a purposefulness and intentionality to things in our world. And this was their way of showing it. In the chassidic, mystical work of the Tanya we find the following statement made:

Now it is so for every person, |

and the purpose of all His creations |

and the creation of all the worlds, |

to make a dwelling place for |

G-d in this lower world.” |

זה כל האדם 

ותכלית בריאתו 

ובריאות כל העולמות 

עליונים ותחתונילהיות 

לו דירה זו בתחתוני

Likkutei Amarim – Tanya, Chapter 33

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe

On a fundamental level, everything in the universe was created to be an embodiment of godliness. The kabbalists teach us that the universe was created as a space in order for the Divine to be manifest. The universe is a canvas, and the elements in it are materials we can artistically fashion to show the glory of the Divine. And each of us people, our desire is to bring completion and holiness to this world. Us living things have an internal drive to be partners in this act of creation, taking the basic elements of the world and fashion them into a display of higher order. That is just what we are meant to do.

Though we do not have a Temple that stands before us, we need to be aware that the Divine Presence does dwell among us. And this Torah displays many other ways, aside from just the commandments of building a Tabernacle, for how we can manifest holiness in this world. We can take the basic elements of everyday life and raise them to holiness through completing mitzvot. We can take the ordinary things of life and impart spirituality and intention into them, and thus allow holiness to dwell in our homes and lives. In this way we can cause Hashem to dwell among us.

What type of contribution are you willing to make today in order to bring godliness into the world?

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